It was not quite of plastic, said one onlooker. Nor quite of flesh, said another, while others began to murmur that it looked rather like the Great Artifact which hung painted or embroidered along many official hallways.
It was still breathing. With a stick, they might lever the artifact face-up, said a man who had just such a stick at the ready.
He started forward, suggesting that they might first probe what appeared to be a mouth gasping for an unavailable breath or framing its last words. Or belching discreetly, added another.
Yet in paintings or embroideries, the Great Artifact always hovered self-luminously, added another, whereas this thing was dull and lying on its side in the dirt.
Most of the onlookers were equally dirty after having just come up from the mines. Several of them were now bearing sticks. The circle tightened, and shoulders began to touch.
At the tolling of a weak, rhythmic bell located in one of the packs the onlookers wore strapped to their waists, the circle pulled taut, and one onlooker said, at once rather decisively and rather indecisively: Let’s poke the thing!?
Others supported this idea. The one most clearly in favor of it, a small boy called Newel, posing in the en garde position with a stick he had recently untrenched, began to stumble forward, and the sweeping path of his stick met the ankles and pant legs of those nearest him. Suddenly and most sternly, he was warned to cut it out.
Cut it out! the mature voice echoed. Yet there seemed to Newel something ever-dimensional about the artifact. Boundless, seamless, centerless, he thought: he was too young to know how to clarify these thoughts but precisely young enough to stumble head-long into them and continue to stumble further and further in until he was fully submerged, until he was thinking aloud and jabbing the stick —
An old woman took it.
Newel instinctively raised his finger to lodge an objection. Then he noticed that the skin around her face hung in low flaps that were so loose and uneven that at one point, she must have been significantly larger than she presently was, significantly more imposing, and enough of this previous stature remained to silence the young boy.
She warned him, didn’t she? she said flatly. Now you’re going to remain still, she continued. When you prove that you can be still, perhaps then the stick might be returned —
It was taken from her, wrested from this old woman by a man who immediately transferred it to the bundle of sticks under his arm.
This was the town elder.
Though he was not eldest, nor even of senior ranking, here was a man far more ambitious than any other man in this realm, and more dangerous. He said nothing. He went on to collect the rest of the sticks while squinting here and there.
Newel and the old woman were rubbing their hands where the stick had been wrenched, his coated with leftover pieces of bark, hers with skin.
After Newel had wiped his hand on his pants, he raised this same hand and said, Elder?
The old woman touched his shoulder and lowered his hand by force. She predicted, not unkindly, that his pleas to the Elder would gain little attention. His voice was far too high-pitched, she said, too underdeveloped, not even girlish yet. It was a register that held particular attraction to old women like her, and even to some domestic animals, but for men like the Elder, it was simply an inaccessible frequency.
I can see that your heart is in the right place, little fellow, the old woman said. You just want to learn more about this thing that has fallen plop in the middle of the dirt field, this semi-breathing thing which may or may not be the Great Artifact. Little faces like yours are easily puzzled, the old woman went on, and quite often they are puzzled to a state of nausea or tears, but rare indeed is such confusion which can bring the simultaneous onset of both these states, which I see that you are nearing. She laughed, and to Newel it resembled a classroom noise he was quite familiar with, that of erasers beating the chalk out of each other.
Calm down, little fellow, she said after a duration of silence. We must allow men like the Elder to run their course. Her curtains of facial skin swayed like those of a house too spacious for its occupant. Men like the Elder, she added, have one concern, little fellow, and the sooner you process this information the better. These men will retain control at all costs.
Take your eyes from my folds of skin. Look where my finger is pointing. He has finished collecting all the sticks and yet has made no move to investigate or even acknowledge the possibly Great Artifact where it lies with softer and softer tremblings.
Watch now, little fellow. Watch as my wisdom-encrusted voice manages to attract his attention when I say, Elder?
Elder? she said.
Soon, emboldened, others joined her query. Elder?
The Elder turned. He asked what they were saying his name for.
It was some while before a response was ventured, softly: You’re standing in the way of the artifact.
You’ve just about railed off the artifact, another ventured, by extending your arms from the central baluster of your torso as though to keep us from approaching a hazardous ledge!
Oh? the Elder said. That? This? said the Elder. You mean that? My standing in the way of that?
He began to laugh, then stopped, then began to laugh again. His mouth appeared full of something he could not quite bring himself to swallow, nor quite to spit out. Then he said, All this murmuring of my name has been generated by that?
This? he added.
That’s no artifact, the Elder said finally. He bid them, in a voice he used solely for bidding, to heed his words.
That’s a compound.
A compound? said the old woman whose loose skin had once again captivated the young boy, reminding him of an orange that he had once peeled halfway before his hunger abruptly disbanded and it had seemed better to just toss it into a bush rather than continue to carry it around with him. This was the moment, as the old woman questioned the Elder, the word compound the scratchiest and most wizened word that Newel had ever heard, when he began to consider her brave. A brave one, he thought suddenly. Newel, like many young boys, was somewhat dazzled by bravery. So he did not mind the position she had begun to stand in, shield-wise between Newel and the Elder, her arm pressed rigid and not unseatbeltlike across his chest, a position that Newel’s mother, who worked in the Elder’s marketing division, and Newel’s father, who was the Elder’s physical therapist, had never taken before.
Compound? many uttered. These voices followed her lead and were growing more and more determined.
Yes, the Elder said. That’s right. This is a compound all right, and by the looks of it, a compound of several different mucuses and something like blood, if blood were more like snakes.
Why, someone questioned, cannot a compound also be an artifact?
The old woman, her arm still diagonally securing Newel’s young chest, turned to look at the author of this question with sheer approval, Newel observed, but considerably sheerer terror.
The Elder likewise turned to focus on the author of this question. Slowly, he explained that such questions made him antsy. When the logic behind his inferences was questioned, it always, he said, always made him antsy, and when antsy, he slowly continued, he was prone to exert his leadership rather spastically.
Newel, indeed, had witnessed these sudden, fitful bursts of leadership before. He placed one hand gently on the old woman’s waist while moving closer to her. Hold on to me, boy, the old woman said or did not say — Newel was not quite sure, as just then a hand of wind and cold had dug between them and swirled everything around, and the leaves of trees bordering the dirt field began to fall, and the old woman’s scarf flew back into his face so that all of Newel’s sight, except for that of leaves falling at the outskirts of his vision, was obstructed.
Or it’s just a vegetable, the Elder said. Heed this: a vegetable cannot be an artifact.
Several additional voices began to murmur, and their words soon congealed to express an overwhelming sentiment: it didn’t look much like any vegetable they’d ever seen before.
True, the Elder admitted. Fine. It’s too greasy for that. Too completely be-spattered and -smeared and -smirched with grease, this thing, and you know what our scientists have told us about the dangers of grease.
Now an old man began to move forward. Rags bundling his body, beard bundling his face, he limped forward and stood at the base of the Elder as at the base of a mountain, where he turned to address the crowd: That’s not grease, friends. That’s shine! That’s pure shine like the shine you see on the tapestry of the Great Artifact in the Hall of Omens!
The Elder picked this old man up and dangled him by a sort of handle which had no outward manifestation but seemed to reside deep in the old man’s forehead and then swung him through the air and finally into an outlying settlement of chopped wood.
What happened next happened too quickly for Newel to remember clearly. He could only remember flashes, each occurring with the distinct noise that also occurs when a light bulb burns out: the old woman opening her jacket to reveal a stick; the snapping impact and flying fragments of the stick as it broke across the back of the Elder; and the scooping up of the artifact and the feeling as if he, too, had been scooped up by the old woman, though in fact he was just running behind her as fast as he could.
It was the foggiest zone in the realm. Where the cold air from the north meets the warm air from the south, she said, while concurrently meeting the bottom of a valley, where all the heaviest mist has settled, where most of the lower halves of our bodies are in perfect obscurity, and you’ll notice, she said, that we are visible only from the torso-up, and there is a sense of wading slowly, laboriously forward, although our movements, you’ll notice, are in no actual way impeded, the old woman said.
That old man, she added, was my husband. Not my first. The second, perhaps? No, but you could call him the last, as his kind will never be equaled.
You? she laughed. You think you might equal him one day? Take his place?
Newel had not yet said anything.
You think because I lost him defending you, my arm across your chest, that it is your role to one day take his place? Oh no, he was far too gallant, the old woman said. You could not hope to match his gallantry, and I am anyway far too old for you to think of me in those terms. Best to abandon that line of thinking.
Newel still had not spoken a word. She held his gaze through her curtains of flesh as older women have so often held the gazes of young boys, most often treeborne, peeping through foggy glass and forbidden curtains of bedroom windows, then turned away and with one step forward disappeared in the fog.
She reappeared through the fog, now on the other side of Newel, and said, Answer me this. Why did you follow me?
Newel began to point at the artifact under her arm as he considered his explanation.
But no, she said breathlessly, little fellow, you mustn’t! Yes, there is much I could teach you about maturity. Why, no doubt the experience gained would help you to someday win over a young woman, perhaps with the status or character traits of a princess, who would otherwise not give you the time of day. There are ways to enthrall princess-like young women who would otherwise not give you the time of day. They rarely, she said, leaning toward Newel, want you to do to them what they say they want you to do to them. These kinds of young women are sitting around waiting for a young man who has been trained by an older woman to show up and do to them exactly what they have sworn up and down never to tolerate.
Perhaps I could train you, little fellow. Would you be the first that I have trained in this art? Perhaps we will indeed revisit this topic, the old woman laughed. For now, she said, turning serious, let us focus on the artifact. She patted the artifact under her arm.
Come! Stay close to me. There is someone we must visit.
It seemed to Newel that they were sinking, falling through mouths in the fog. A steep descent that rounded suddenly. Then they began to plod upward and the fog melted away to reveal a small lodge.
There was a scientist in there, the old woman said, one who could be trusted not to betray them.
You are a young fellow, are you not? the woman said. You are a young fellow who has surely been exposed to this modern crop of televised dramas where the following happens: those who a certain party trusts not to betray them eventually and inevitably and heartlessly and mercilessly betray that certain party.
You’re nodding. Why shouldn’t you nod? Indeed, you’re still nodding, aren’t you? Heartless betrayal is both the engine of modern television and a kind of stainless upholstery to which no ethical principal can stick. These days we expect — nay, require, insist — that the hero be heartlessly betrayed five or more times before he is ultimately worthy of his final goal.
Now you’re looking at me like this: what’s stopping her, this old, physically unalluring, though perhaps psychologically very alluring woman, with large remnants of skin from a long ago battle and ultimate victory over an unnamed condition, from heartlessly betraying me, a young fellow, whose innocence remains primarily intact, and whose pores, I might add, are so small, so closed, as to be nearly invisible? Where are your pores, little fellow? Why do you now take one step back as I take one step forward? I’m reaching out to touch your face, and you’re taking another step back and craning your neck away.
The artifact, which had remained relatively still, suddenly puffed out like a fish or a lizard seeking to win a mate, and though it had no eyes, indeed no discernible limbs or other parts aside from what may have been a mouth, Newel felt that it was gesturing, somehow indicating the door of the lodge, which at that moment began to creep open.
She was not dressed like a scientist. Newel took a good look at her, then took another step back to reassess. There was nothing logical or systematic about the arrangement of her outfit. He looked up to her eyes. They were smaller than Newel would have hoped, so small that he felt as though he were looking through the wrong side of the peephole in a security door. While she could discern him entirely from her vantage point, there was no hope, even if he were to cup his eyes and press them right up against her face, that he might ever gain clear visibility of the being within. He took another step back.
He’s always taking steps back, the old woman explained. She sighed, then displayed the artifact, and the scientist took it in a manner that was unnecessarily hasty, Newel thought, perhaps even greedily, and disappeared inside the small lodge.
Newel followed cautiously. He glanced about the room. Finally, he located the artifact atop a narrow workbench. He did not approve of all the glinting, toothed surgical instruments depending from racks at such close proximity, and he raised one finger to lodge an objection —
First things first, the scientist said. The first thing we must determine before pre-, pro-, and post-surgical evaluation of this artifact: where’s your Mitchum?
Lost, the old woman said.
You lost him? In the fog?
No. Or, yes, in a manner of speaking, she replied. We’ll need to use fog as a metaphor. Mitchum challenged the Elder.
Dear me, the scientist said. Your Mitchum is gone?
Indeed: I have no Mitchum. I feel —
He was so gallant. You do realize, don’t you, that I always wanted Mitchum for myself and had even designed various plots to this end?
Yes. But you see, I chose to defend this young boy — the old woman pointed at Newel, who was lingering apart from this conversation in the half-shadows in the corner of the room — instead of defending Mitchum.
I see. Then it follows that the boy will take Mitchum’s place?
The old woman leaned in and whispered something to the scientist and then backed away so that the two might exchange a look that Newel could not help but find blatantly, extravagantly conspiratorial, and then before he knew it, he was running, grabbing the artifact, and tucking it under his arm.
He was in the fog now. The fog became vines that stroked him constantly. There were ample opportunities for stumbling. Somehow the vines became the veins or snakes in the artifact that Newel was staring and staring into as he ran. He did not take his eyes from it.
He was in the sunlight now, in a sort of clearing. He stared at the artifact in his hands. Thick-trunked trees ringed them. At the center of the clearing was a sizable rock. I’ll sit down on that rock, Newel thought. That’s where I’ll catch my breath.
But Newel did not sit down on the rock. He did not catch his breath. He had just done something, hadn’t he? He had done something brave, decisive, momentous. It was a turning point for him, and in that moment, it was as if a tide had wiped his prior self away. He was now defined by this. He was now the boy who stole the artifact.
He took a seat on the rock.
He sat a while.
He still felt like Newel.
He sat a while longer.
Yes, he still felt like Newel, he was certain of that. But there was something else, too. As best he could understand it, he felt that while he still felt like Newel, he felt just as strongly that what he had felt like for the prior duration of his life had not really been Newel after all.